Asking the elusive question
Modern, contemporary. Contemporary, modern. These terms are often used interchangeably. So is there actually any difference between them? And if so, why?
One answer is simple: time. Modern art came before contemporary art. Most art historians and critics put the beginning of modern art in the West at around the 1860s, continuing up to the 1960s. Whereas, contemporary art means art made in the present day. But it can be hard to define what the ‘present day’ really means. Is that art made by living artists? Art made in our lifetimes? Or is it artists making work that references or engages with the culture of the present day? Perhaps even artwork made in a way that defines what the ‘present day’ is? So, the start date of contemporary art is, perhaps paradoxically, most often set back in the 1960s and 70s.
But as well as time difference, there are also other differences—in method, medium, and approach. And when we talk about modern and contemporary art, we’re also talking about lots of different movements and forms, from Post-Impressionism, to Dada, to Pop Art, to Installation Art.
So first let’s take a look at modern art. When we see Monet printed on tea towels and Cézanne on the cover of biscuit tins, it can be hard to imagine how radical and shocking this style of painting was in its day. Modern art and ‘modernism’ was a radical departure from the kinds of art that had gone before; its rejection of traditional perspective and subject matter was especially innovative.
Many art historians say that Édouard Manet was the first ‘modern’ artist—specifically his painting from 1863, Luncheon on the Grass. This is because the piece didn’t try to portray the scene in a way that looked ‘real’ and three dimensional. Manet’s figures look like they sit on top of one another; the woman bathing in a stream almost seems to be hovering over the other characters, as though she could fall off her perch and land in their laps at any moment. Manet was also criticized for the lack of shading between the light and dark areas of the picture and for the 'lowly' subject matter of his painting.
A kind of mini-turning point in the transition between modern and contemporary art came with the movement known as 'abstract expressionism’, as this ushered in a movement away from the content of the picture, and towards a focus on the process of making the artwork itself. Take Jackson Pollock; his artworks were as much about the act of dripping paint and moving around the canvas, cigarette in mouth, as it was about the finished product per se. This movement was a small stepping stone on the road towards what we now think of as contemporary art.
The sea-change came in the 1960s and 70s, with a revolution in the way we make, and think about, art. Much modernist art, including abstract expressionism, took itself very seriously, privileging the 'genius' of the artist. Pop art, minimalism, conceptual art, and performance art, however, turned this on its head, making artwork that looked at modernism's preconceptions about art with a wry smirk. Instead of beauty and form, artists were often now more interested in the concept behind the artwork, so art now took on lots of different forms—video, performance, installation—and often lived outside of galleries or traditional art spaces altogether.
An important part of contemporary art isn’t held in the brushstrokes of paint, or the marble of a sculpture; it isn’t even in the artwork at all, rather, it’s the viewer's impression of the artwork. Contemporary artworks often focus on the effect on, and experience of, an artwork’s viewer. To many critics and art theorists, we make the artwork what it is. In some cases, the artwork is only made up of the people who experience it, as with many performance and social action projects.
A question that so often gets leveled at contemporary art is usually something along the lines of, “but is it art though?’ or, “my four-year-old could do that”. But, funnily enough, this shows that contemporary artists are doing their jobs properly. How? Because a lot of contemporary art is interrogating our conception of ‘aesthetics’. Aesthetics is the philosophical enquiry into what makes something art. So when we look at a pile of bricks, or a urinal in an art gallery, the artists are actually trying to make us question whether or not their work is art, and if it is, what makes it so.